Arik

Warrior: The Autobiography of Ariel Sharon.
by Ariel Sharon with David Chanoff.
Simon & Schuster. 571 pp. $24.95.

One comes to this book with many suspicions. Ariel Sharon, after all, enjoys a rather unsavory reputation even in many Zionist circles as the man who brought upon Israel the disaster of the Lebanon war and who today stands foursquare against an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation. Those with some knowledge of the history of the Israeli army may be even more suspicious: Sharon was the man who carried out some particularly bloody retaliation raids in the 1950’s, who let his troops get sucked into an unnecessary battle in the Mitla Pass in 1956, and whose conduct in the 1974 Yom Kippur War brought him close to court martial. To others he simply appears a demagogic general-in-politics, a man who can turn out a mob chanting “Arik King of Israel,” and whose appearance and demeanor suggest both slyness and ambition. And in any event, what can one expect of an autobiography by a serving cabinet minister who still has a political career before him and has made use of a freelance writer to help with the nitty-gritty of producing a book?

In fact, however, this is not just a good book, it is an extraordinarily compelling and engrossing one. Even someone who comes to it loathing Sharon’s politics and mistrusting his past behavior will go away not only more knowledgeable about both of these things but, probably, more sympathetic to the man himself. Although Sharon can be disingenuous about what he has done, there is a curiously earnest and at times almost innocent feel to this memoir. Over some of his emotions Sharon draws a veil of privacy—he does not, for example, describe at length his feelings upon the death of his first wife in a car crash—but he also provides more than enough material to impart a sense of his psychological makeup. Indeed, complaints by some reviewers that the book is insufficiently forthcoming on this score betray either the degraded contemporary taste for exhibitionism masquerading as honesty or a simple inability to read carefully.

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Sharon tells of a difficult childhood on a pre-state moshav (cooperative farm). His parents were Russian immigrants, but his mother shared little of the deep, almost fanatical Zionist determination of his father, whose stubbornness his son inherited. Ariel also absorbed from his father a brusque willingness to break from the pack: Samuil Sharon was rarely on good terms with his fellow moshavniks, and he had little use for the various streams of Labor Zionism that dominated the pre-independence Jewish community in Palestine. Indeed, Samuil Sharon’s revulsion at the “season”—the brief period when the Haganah cooperated with the British authorities in hunting down members of the Irgun—led him to forbid Ariel to join the Palmach, the elite standing force of the Haganah.

Sharon served instead in the Jewish Settlement Police, a British-sponsored force operated by the Haganah. He fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 and was badly wounded in the battle for Latrun, where, for a time, he was left behind on the field. He describes waking up in the hospital and being visited by

parents of boys in my platoon, searching for their sons. So little information had gotten out about the battle, and with the primitive communications of those days who could tell how much of it might be accurate. I hardly knew myself who had been left alive. It was so hard to lie there and know that they were standing silently in the room waiting for me to come awake enough to talk to them, and so hard to know that I had survived and their sons hadn’t. What could I tell them—about what the Arabs did to the dead and wounded? About what they did to prisoners? These people just stood there, people I had known all my life. In their silence I imagined I could hear them saying that they had given the most precious things they had into my hands. And now where are they, you who are alive? Tell, they are saying, where are our sons?

By war’s end most of his friends were dead. He left the army convinced that many of those losses were unnecessary and that, given the chance, he could have prevented them.

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This brings us to the bulk of the book, which deals with Sharon’s career in the Israeli army through the 1973 war. Here again some reviewers have ostentatiously stifled yawns, dismissing the narrative as military detail of little interest to the general reader. They could not be more wrong, for Sharon’s story offers fascinating insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the Israeli army and its evolution from a ragtag underground organization to the formidable, nearly half-million-member force of today.

In 1953 Sharon was recalled from his studies to set up an elite commando unit for conducting retaliatory raids against Israel’s neighbors, in order to stem a rising tide of sabotage and murder launched over the borders. Unit 101, as it was called, was soon amalgamated with the paratroop battalion of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), which Sharon subsequently commanded. From there he went on to lead a paratroop brigade in the 1956 war, to serve as chief of staff of the Northern Command, to head a division in the Sinai in 1967, finally rising to the post of General Officer Commanding South in the early 1970’s. From this post he retired in 1973, only to be recalled as a division commander again in the Yom Kippur War.

Sharon describes with a rare clarity the approach to training and battle which made him an extraordinarily formidable battlefield commander. The great secret of Israeli military success lies not so much in cleverness, although there is something of that, but in single-minded concentration on the essentials of tactics and leadership. From Sharon’s account three basic tenets of his military philosophy become clear.

First, soldiers must be absolute masters of the terrain in which they fight: when they know exactly where they are and understand and feel at home in every wadi and on every ridge, their military effectiveness rises immeasurably. Interestingly enough, Sharon, who shows considerable respect for the Arab fighting man, attributes some of the Egyptian collapse in 1967 to the fear of the desert felt by soldiers whose homes lay in the green Nile delta.

Secondly, contrary to the conventional picture of Israeli military men as improvisers and muddlers-through, Sharon was a great planner. His breakthrough at Abu Ageila in 1967 was a masterful, remarkably complicated set-piece battle made possible only by meticulous planning and rehearsal.

Finally, Sharon, recalling his own terrifying experiences in 1948 and on another occasion, made it a cardinal principle that no Israeli soldier, dead or wounded, would ever—ever—be left behind. And, he insisted, if any Israeli should fall prisoner, his compatriots must immediately launch a wave of military kidnappings to secure Arab prisoners for an exchange.

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Unit 101 and the paratroops made a vital contribution to the rehabilitation of an IDF weakened by post-independence demobilization, by the influx of new immigrants whose discipline was often poor and whose grip on the language was uncertain, and by the dominance of an officer corps too influenced by the example of the British army. In the early 1950’s, some of the best officers from the War of Independence—including the brilliant young general Yigal Allon, commander of the Palmach—had left active duty. The army was dominated less by homegrown products of the underground than by men who had served with the British during World War II. Many of the latter, though vital to the development of the technical branches of the army and the establishment of its institutions, lacked the leadership élan and the tactical flair of the former. As a result, the army botched many early retaliatory operations, with grievous losses to the men involved as well as to Israeli prestige and self-confidence.

Sharon’s roughneck outfit changed all that, if at a price. Unit 101 was composed mainly of mavericks like Sharon himself, and they played by their own rules. The results, at times, were raids that inflicted, intentionally or not, far more damage than had been planned. When Sharon’s men raided the Jordanian town of Kibbiya (lugging with them at least 600 kilograms of explosives), they killed 69 civilians hidden in the houses that they blew up. Sharon pressed for action whenever a terrorist outrage occurred, and he pushed his instructions to the limit. In this he was the perfect subordinate to that flawed genius, Moshe Dayan, who preferred to give vague authority for an operation which he would endorse if successful and repudiate if not.

Sharon’s top soldier, a legend among the commandos, was a man named Meir Har Zion. Warrior recounts how, after Har Zion’s sister and her boyfriend were killed on a hike in Jordan by Bedouin tribesmen, the commando determined to get revenge. Sharon says that he tried to talk him out of it, but decided in the end to give Har Zion his chance by supplying him with weapons, a car, and a driver. The avenger used these to capture six Bedouin from the same tribe—though not, it would appear, the perpetrators; he and his friends killed five and sent the survivor back to spread the tale. It is revealing that Sharon shrugs the espisode off as “a throwback to tribal days, the kind of ritual revenge the Bedouin understood perfectly.”

Here we have the dark side of Sharon, which appears throughout his career. He explains each of the episodes—Kibbiya, the Har Zion revenge killings, the unnecessary advance into the Mitla Pass in 1956, all the way to the 1982 massacres by Christian militiamen at the Israeli-controlled camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon—in ways that are, individually, plausible. But one is left wondering why, at every stage in his career, there hangs over this man the shadow of deeds (not necessarily his own) that are at best grim, at worst evil.

Some of Sharon’s occasional manifestations of amorality have as much to do with a ruthless insight into human affairs as with an undeniable hunger for glory. He is not a man to call things otherwise than by their names, and although he may deceive, one suspects that he does not deceive himself. Sharon’s description of his remarkable accomplishment in putting down the PLO in the Gaza Strip during the 1970’s shows this logic in action.

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Sharon and the paratroops set a tone for the reborn IDF, but without winning the love of many of his peers. Even in the early years he was an outsider, not having served in the Palmach and having no ties to the ruling Labor party save for the faction around David Ben-Gurion. In the Sinai campaign of 1956, when he stretched an order to send his men through the Mitla Pass, leading to an ambush and an unnecessary bloody firefight before their rescue, he earned the dislike of more than one competent soldier.

Sharon chronicles in some detail his longstanding feud with Chaim Bar-Lev over, among other things, the defense of Sinai after 1967. Where his rivals favored a rigid defense of the Suez Canal—the famous Bar-Lev Line—in order to deny the Egyptians the possibility of any territorial gains, Sharon favored more fluid deployments that would allow the Egyptians to attack and then take advantage of Israeli superiority in maneuver to defeat them. As GOC South he closed down much of the Bar-Lev Line, and as a divisional commander in 1973 he vainly urged that the outposts along the Canal be evacuated immediately.

On both counts he was probably right, although something can be said for the logic of the original Line. Concerning his behavior later in the Yom Kippur War, controversy remains, and will not be dispelled by this book. His readiness in the immediate aftermath of the war to criticize other generals sharply and in the American press did him little good with his colleagues.

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Unlike many generals, Sharon made a successful go of it in politics, helping to set up the Likud bloc out of the divided Center and right-wing parties of the early 1970’s. He describes why it is that good soldiers are baffled and infuriated by politicians:

Like politics, military life is a constant struggle. But with all the difficulties and bitterness that may develop, at least [in the military] there are certain rules. In politics there are no rules, no sense of proportion, no sensible hierarchy. An Israeli military man setting foot in this new world . . . has had moments of exultation and moments of deepest grief. . . . He knows what it is to be supremely confident, even inspired. But he has also suffered the most abject fear and the deepest horror. He has made decisions about life and death, for himself as well as for others.

The same person enters the political world and finds that he has one mouth to speak with and one hand to vote with, exactly like the man sitting next to him. And that man perhaps has never witnessed or experienced anything profound or anything dramatic in his life. He does not know either the heights or the depths. He has never tested himself or made critical decisions or taken responsibility for his life or the lives of his fellows. And this man—it seems incredible—but this man too has one mouth and one hand.

Yet Sharon, who describes his entry into politics with more than a touch of irony and dark humor, was successful in that sphere as well. His career culminated, and nearly ended, in his tenure as Minister of Defense. Although he does not cover this at length in his memoirs, his service in the Kirya, Israel’s Pentagon, during the early 1980’s marked one of the most concentrated efforts to engage in long-range strategic planning since Ben-Gurion left the Ministry of Defense.

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Sharon’s account of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 adds some detail but no startling new insights. Even his own version suggests that he did indeed, as has been charged, mislead the Israeli cabinet into approving a relatively limited 40-kilometer-deep operation to wipe out PLO bases in southern Lebanon when he knew that the logic of events would bring the IDF considerably farther north. He excuses his behavior by claiming that no cabinet had ever been so meticulously briefed, day by day, on the progress of the fighting; but that is hardly the point.

Sharon’s behavior in the case of Lebanon reveals an element of continuity in his general approach to Israeli national security—namely, his belief that Israelis must trick themselves in order to summon up the resolve for dealing with threats to their existence. Throughout the book, for example, he asserts that Israelis must settle in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) in order to prevent themselves, in a moment of weakness, from giving in to international pressure and permitting the creation of a new Palestinian state. More than once in his career Sharon appears to have regarded his countrymen and their political leaders as too weak to be trusted in a clinch to do the necessary thing for Israel’s security. Instead, they must be deceived or manipulated, not by outright lies but by shadings of the truth and by first steps which will inevitably lead to others in ways foreseen by Sharon but not by his compatriots.

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In the case of Lebanon, Sharon grievously miscalculated the domestic consequences of waging this kind of war and, I suspect, the real possibilities for achieving his objectives, including the forging of an explicit Israeli-Lebanese partnership. But in all his actions there was a hard if flawed logic, just as there is in his stance on the Palestinian problem. For a long time Sharon has argued vociferously that the Palestinians need and deserve a state, but not on the West Bank and the Gaza; their state is Jordan, which has a Palestinian majority and occupies the greater part of mandatory Palestine. Most Israelis, by contrast, have considered the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan to be far preferable as a neighbor, and in the main they have been right. But it is conceivable that Sharon is at least partly correct, for a geographically, politically, militarily, and economically truncated Palestinian ministate would probably not assuage the Palestinian demand for a state.

Even more than for most Israelis, Sharon’s life has been marked by success and tragedy. In the Likud itself his position is insecure, and he is at odds with the leader of his party. But he is a sixty-one-year-old man in a country of young generals but old politicians, and so for many years to come he will have his say in the politics of his nation. One may go further. It is undoubtedly Sharon’s ambition to become Prime Minister of Israel. That will probably not happen, save in one circumstance. In the highly unlikely event that the country were to find itself facing catastrophe, Israelis might turn to a man with the hard will, hot patriotism, and cold intelligence (one should not call it wisdom) of Ariel Sharon. There are many reasons for hoping that hour will not arrive.

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